In the late ’70s, I taught Othello—which Raphael Parry directs for Shakespeare Dallas this summer—to an English class that had four or five Vietnam veterans mixed in with the ordinary undergraduates. After class, one of the vets came to my office. He confessed, almost trembling, that since we’d started the play, he had been eaten up with doubts about his own wife. At first, I thought he was kidding. “Desdemona’s innocent,” I said. Remember: the great Moorish general Othello, driven by his own insecurities and the wicked counsel of Iago, murders his wife for an infidelity she didn’t commit.
The Vietnam vet told me that was just it. Once he’d gotten the idea—from the play!—that his wife was cheating on him, the more tormenting it was. What if she was so evil, she could sleep with somebody else yet appear perfectly innocent because she didn’t feel guilty about it?
This was a white guy in his mid-20s married to a white woman, so it had nothing to do with race—just with the effect on his imagination of malicious hints, insinuations, and metaphors addressed to a black general in a fiction a long time ago. Iago is a character so bad that he can mess with somebody’s marriage four centuries after Shakespeare wrote his lines for him. This veteran, like Othello, was about to ruin his life over a suspicion. Maybe it’s something about soldiers, who know that enemies always want to look like friends the better to deceive them.
In any case, it’s a good thing we read the whole play and talked it out. Watching the old warrior Othello kill Desdemona—and then kill himself when he discovers her innocence—is the most powerful exorcism of jealousy in dramatic literature. The private passion of jealousy, though, opens onto a still more devastating abyss, a loss of trust in everything that had seemed most certain and stable, and one way or another, this play remains a provocation. The fact that Othello and Desdemona come from different races adds a dimension that must be interpreted. Is racial difference simply a genetic accident, or did God—or nature—intend something by it? For people in past ages, the idea that this difference had no larger meaning would in itself have plunged people into an abyss of purposelessness. For us, it seems racist to bring it up. Put on Othello in a Dallas park, and it makes us ask where we stand right now, both with an unpopular distant entanglement already longer than either World War II or the Civil War and—centrally, powerfully, provocatively—with race. It’s impossible to pretend that race is peripheral to the play.
This summer, the race question occupies us more than it has in decades. On one hand, Dallas feels embarrassment—but also relief—over District Attorney Craig Watkins’ discovery of black prisoner after black prisoner unjustly imprisoned, often for many years, and now released because of new DNA evidence brought to light by the Innocence Project of Texas. On the other hand, just 40 years after Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and George Wallace carried five Southern states, a black man has become the nominee of the Democratic Party, and white Dallas supported him overwhelmingly in the March 4 primary.
Just after rehearsals in mid-May, I asked Raphael Parry whether the Obama candidacy has influenced his view of the play. “It’s so interesting how this parallel’s happening,” he says. He and René Moreno, who directs Shakespeare Dallas’ other summer offering, All’s Well That Ends Well, have been talking about it ever since they chose the plays last fall. “This whole Barack and Hillary thing!” Parry says. “All’s Well is about this incredibly strong woman, so we’re actually looking at it like here’s Hillary running All’s Well, and Barack is in Othello. But inside the play, I guess one of the reasons I was interested in doing it is that there’s that odd racial tension”—he says it in an almost wondering way, as though it hurts to acknowledge it—“that still exists.”
When I teach the play, I always emphasize that Othello has a number of things other than race that set him apart from Desdemona and the Venetians. Iago calls him “an extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere.” He’s the kind of man that Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, immediately suspects of using witchcraft to win her—not what he’d think if she fell for one of the “wealthy, curled darlings” of Venice. In staging it this summer, Parry has chosen not to emphasize these other differences.
“I know you can play him, ‘He’s from Africa; he’s got these tribal customs; he’s still an outsider,’ but we’ve chosen to make him fully assimilated in this culture. In our production, there’s almost no difference to him except the color of his skin. We’ve had to look at our company to make sure we had a lot of light-skinned people, frankly. We did choose an actress, Danielle Pickard, who’s extremely fair and very blonde, and I tell you, it’s a delight to see that contrast onstage already.”
A culturally assimilated Othello? The choice appears to be a deliberate commentary on Obama, whose manners and patterns of speech bear all the marks of cultural “whiteness.” He neither occasionally displays nor carefully suppresses a truer, more authentic “blackness.” He’s a mainstream American liberal with dark skin and a rich baritone. By making Othello just as assimilated, Parry and his actors highlight the issue of race alone, race pure and simple.
Parry has worked with Vince McGill, who plays Othello, in a number of previous productions. “We can have conversations and an open discussion about, ‘What does this mean, to be completely needed in this community, one of the most powerful people in Venice, and yet, when it comes time for him to be with Desdemona, he’s completely damned by Brabantio?’ It’s been interesting working on it. You don’t realize the powerful themes until you’re actually digging into the text. It’s unbelievable, just a little statement like ‘thick lips.’ It’s just horrible. And you feel bad. But you’re directing the scene, and you’re like, ‘That is the perception here.’ And simultaneously there’s this undeniable love that people have for Othello because he is this great leader. Vince and I were talking about this—about how Othello actually believes his own mythology. He talks about ‘great ones,’ and he thinks he is one of them.
“It’s interesting that you mention Barack,” Parry says, “because Othello has that unbelievable power of speech. His rhetoric is gorgeous. In some ways it is Barack—his skillful orations, over and over and over. Then he has these unbelievable stumbles. What we’re finding in the rehearsal process is that when Othello gets highly emotional and charged, he goes into these short staccato phrases.” The director momentarily disappears into the actor almost choking with fury, quoting the lines: “Goats and monkeys!”
So what is Othello in the summer of Obama? In the play, race has none of the more malignant connotations that arose in the 19th century, but the playwright could see what was coming. The visible difference, the question of what God or nature intended by it—all of it loomed as Europe and Africa moved toward collision in the New World. All of that history comes into play at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre as Othello, maddened by jealousy, closes his hands night after night on the rich life of Desdemona. She is everything he could dream of possessing, but the very fact that this Highland Park debutante, so to speak, loves a black man so intensely convinces Othello that she’s perverse and unfaithful in her nature. Why love him?
I don’t think I’m wrong to suspect that Barack Obama would not be the Democratic nominee for president if he had married a white woman before wooing the white electorate. In his remarkable March speech on race, Obama said, “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” He wed the black past of bondage and sexual transgression to make it his own. That strain of blackness did not lie in his Kenyan father’s past, no more than it lies in this year’s white voters.
Much has changed, but how much, exactly? We have a cultural gauge with Othello. Someday—Faulkner’s Isaac McCaslin says, “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America”—we’ll know that race has become a matter of indifference. In the meantime, there’s Hillary Clinton. Speaking of jealousy.
Glenn Arbery teaches at the University of Dallas when he isn’t acting as senior editor at People Newspapers. Write to email@example.com. Othello runs through Jul 26 at the Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, 1500 Tenison Pkwy. For dates and times for Othello and other Shakespeare Dallas plays this season, call 214-559-2778, or go to www.shakespearedallas.com.